London: Kensal Green Cemetery

Visiting Kensal Green means that I have finally seen all of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries! I’d of course been meaning to visit for a while, pre-pandemic, but it’s a long, convoluted route there on public transport from where I live, so it was actually much quicker and easier (not to mention safer), for Marcus and me to drive there whilst we had a hire car.

 

Kensal Green is London’s largest cemetery, which I was not at all surprised to learn after visiting, because it seems to go on for miles! It was built in 1833 as a sort of English equivalent to Pere Lachaise, and is the oldest of the Magnificent Seven. As you might expect from a cemetery with over 250,000 burials, there are also a lot of famous people buried here, from Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel to Lady Jane Franklin, Thackeray to Trollope, and hundreds of other names of varying degrees of (mostly Victorian) fame. However, because there is no cemetery map pointing out where these graves are, the only way you’re likely to find any of them is by stumbling on them accidentally.

 

I can’t understand why their Friends haven’t noticed this glaring oversight and produced a map to sell. A digital download would be great, and low effort for them once they’ve produced it, but even a stand holding photocopies with an honesty box attached to it within the cemetery would do the job, because surely some income is better than none (assuming some people would just grab a map without paying, because people suck), but they haven’t, so you’re on your own. We did look up some of the graves we were keen on seeing on Find a Grave, but there were no directions there either, so although we knew what the graves should look like, in a cemetery with a quarter of a million burials, finding them was still highly unlikely.

 

We did manage to stumble upon the Brunel grave somehow, which was surprisingly plain. Given my interest in polar exploration, I was also keen to find Lady Jane Franklin’s (even though she sucked as a person. She tried to discredit John Rae because she couldn’t handle the truth about her husband’s fate, and was pretty damn racist) but as it was apparently just a nondescript cross like the thousands of others in the cemetery, we struck out.

  

However, I serendipitously found George Cruikshank by the side of one of the paths we walked down, which I was thrilled about, since I adore his George IV cartoons. His body was actually moved to St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1878, but his headstone was left behind. We also encountered various obscure Dickens relations, but I’m not the biggest Dahl’s Chickens fan, and am really clueless about his extended family.

 

Kensal Green is home to four chapels, two of which we didn’t really look at as they’re located in the crematorium (where Freddie Mercury et al were cremated, but not buried). Of the two in the cemetery proper, the massive Anglican Chapel had fencing set up all around it, so we couldn’t get very close, though we did investigate the exterior of the much smaller Noncomformist Chapel.

 

Kensal Green suffers from the same neglect as the other Magnificent Seven – it is more open than some, and not quite as overgrown as places like Abney Park, where you can’t even access half the graves, but it is still very obviously in decline, despite being a working cemetery.  I would also say that because of its size, its location, and the lack of visitors/staff, other than a few workmen we encountered, it does feel a bit unsafe in places. I would be hesitant to venture to the farthest reaches by myself, because there would be absolutely no one there to help you if a mugger or rapist jumped out. I hope I’m wrong about that, and I was just being paranoid, but I genuinely did feel a bit uneasy when I wandered off on my own.

 

Despite this uneasy feeling, or maybe because of it, something about the sheer scale of it also made it feel a bit magical in places. For example, I stumbled across a beautiful tree-lined path at one point in our visit, and when I wanted to return to walk down it, I couldn’t manage to find it again. There’s lots of twists and turns and an abundance of horse chestnut trees. There is also a giant, somewhat mysterious structure that looks like a garden surrounded by columns. I didn’t try to go inside, because I didn’t realise that you could, but I happened to read Peter Ross’s excellent A Tomb with a View shortly after visiting (recommended by the always informative Kev), and learned it was a garden memorial built by a grieving father to honour his deceased son, and there is a statue of the son inside. People are welcome to enter and sit in contemplation. I honestly hadn’t realised it was a privately built memorial because it was so huge – I just thought it was part of the cemetery complex, like the chapels, but knowing this makes it much more poignant.

 

I would absolutely recommend visiting, because it is a fabulous crumbling old Grand Dame of a cemetery, but maybe bring a friend and don’t come too close to dusk. Our visit was actually on an unseasonably hot September day, but I would have definitely enjoyed it more with an autumnal chill in the air. I think Brompton Cemetery is still my favourite of the Magnificent Seven, but Kensal Green is probably third on that list, behind Highgate.

 

I’ve realised that although I have visited all of the seven, I have only actually blogged about three of them: Abney Park, Brompton, and now Kensal Green (which I guess gives me something to do if we go back into lockdown again). I’m saving my spookiest October post for next week, so hope you’re ready! By the way, this is the first post that WordPress has forced me to write in the new Block Editor, at least until I figured out you could select Classic Editor from the drop down menu when you start a new post (I didn’t discover that until after writing most of this post though!). Does anyone hate it as much as I do? There’s not even a word count on the bottom (is there a word count at all? I haven’t found it yet!), which I usually rely on to know when to shut up.

 

22 comments

      1. I know! It’s more complicated to do categories, share on social media and, as you rightly say, know how many words you’ve written.

  1. Love all these cemetery pics (and cemetery trees), thanks! 🙂 Will definitely need to visit some day. And yes, I hate the WordPress block editor too. The spacing always gets messed up!

    1. I haven’t published anything that’s been written entirely in block editor, but good to know about the spacing! After I went back in to edit this post in classic editor (after writing most of it in block) WordPress told me I would mess up the format by doing so every single time I went into it. That doesn’t seem to have been the case, but I don’t know why they’re pushing awful block editor so hard.

  2. Interesting! I like a good cemetery, as you know. I haven’t read Peter Ross’s book yet but I will do. Nor have I used the block editor – I discovered the way back into classic on time! I’ve read of a few people getting to like it, but many still seem to be resisting.

    1. I definitely recommend it – it’s a great book! I wish I’d read the Kensal Green Cemetery section before visiting, but fortunately I had inadvertently taken photos of some of the things he mentioned, so at least I was able to look at them again after the fact.

      1. I will definitely read it! Having said that, he has written a couple of books about Scotland which I have meant to read for years and not got round to. He’s a good guy, very supportive of libraries. I met him once, briefly, at an event and he seemed very nice.

  3. You know how I adore cemeteries. Thanks for taking me on a tour of this one. I think American cemeteries must owe something to the English. In Germany, they essentially just rent spaces for like 25 years, then bury someone in top of you and replace the headstone for the new tenant. No point is descendants going to look for long-gone ancestors!

    I’ve been avoiding Block editor like the plague and virtually all the bloggers I follow hate it. I read that you can find a word count by clicking on the “i” icon in the upper right.

    I had wondered if you’d checked Find a grave. They have 145 famous interments listed, but not much hope of finding without a map. Surely there must be records of some sort.

    1. I think some English cemeteries are considering adopting something similar to the German system, albeit not quite as extreme, because there’s just not enough space for everyone. I think most of the Magnificent Seven that are still working cemeteries are forecasting running out of room in the next 5-10 years unless they make some drastic changes. Peter Ross talks about it a bit in the book I mentioned.
      Good to know about the word count – I’ll have to check it out if they ever take classic editor away, because that’s the only way I would ever go back to block!
      I’m sure there are records, but who knows what state they’re in! I briefly volunteered at Brompton Cemetery years ago, and they wanted me to research all the burials from scratch because apparently their records were in such a state they didn’t even want me to look at them. That’s one reason I didn’t last long there as a volunteer!

  4. I hate it! The new editor not the blog post. Good to know you can select classic, will do it next time. I love cemeteries. Nice blog post.

  5. Hi, nice to read this post, as I will also publish some day something about Kensal Green. Well, when I visited there three years ago, you could get a map in the cemetery office. I don’t know if the things have changed since then. I found the Brunel grave totally by accident. I wrote about it on my post about Brunel, but the story was so strange that I copy it here:

    “My main idea was to photograph the nearby gasholders from the cemetery but also look for a couple of interesting graves, Brunel’s last resting place being one of them. I was photographing on the path when a man was cycling towards me. He stopped his bicycle and asked if I had already found the Brunel grave! I was not even looking at any graves at the moment, just photographing. Was it written on my forehead that I wanted to find the Brunel grave? I answered him that I was on my way to the cemetery office to get a cemetery plan and if he happens to know where it might be – the grave, not the office. He said, he didn’t know and a quick search on internet didn’t help either. He continued to his direction and I continued to the direction of the cemetery office. I decided to choose the parallel path and in order to reach it, I walked along a very narrow linking path. In the middle of this linking path I stopped to see if I get a good picture of the gasholders from that point. I looked to my right and what I saw: I was standing in front of the Brunel family grave.”

    And yes, I don’t like the new block editor either. But I have just learned to use the picture gallery and used it first time in my recent post. I used the block editor and classic one together. I was wondering, how it would look, but obviously it didn’t matter.

    1. Thanks for reading! I don’t know if there are still maps in the cemetery office, as it was not open during my visit, possibly because of Covid. There was definitely nothing in the cemetery itself though! Your stumbling on Brunel definitely seems serendipitous, which is so often the case with finding things in cemeteries!

      1. Yes, that’s true, there was not anything in the cemetery, but I guess if there usually are? If I have visited a cemetery, I try to contact the cemetery office or friends organization before my visit (maybe because I come from Finland and thus want to be sure I find what I am looking for). When I wrote a story about the Rosary Cemetery in Norwich, I wrote to the friends organization and they were ready to send me a paper map. As it was close to my trip, I wouldn’t get it before leaving, so it was sent to my friend in London and I got it from there. And it was very useful! Yes, the case with the Brunel grave was quite strange. I had planned to visit a couple more of these London cemeteries this year (because of their anniversary years) and write about them, but here I am stuck in Finland!

  6. So pleased you’ve managed to visit all seven! I’m also disappointed (on your behalf) at the lack of a map (or access to a map, if they have some stored away somewhere) – nothing wrong with a stroll through the cemetery, hoping you ‘bump’ into specific graves, but I much prefer knowing where they are to begin with.

    1. I agree, especially when a cemetery is as big as this one is! There’s simply no way you’re going to accidentally stumble on everything you want to see. I feel like they could at least have a pdf on their website that is downloadable for a small fee.

  7. Cemeteries are such interesting places, as you’ve shown so well here, Jessica. The tombstones that I find most moving are of people who died young. In among the long lives that others lived, these always catch me by surprise.

    1. Thanks! I completely agree, it’s always sad to see the graves of children. My grandpa’s older brother died at the age of 5, when my grandpa was still a baby, and he’s buried in a different area of the cemetery (not Kensal Green, obviously, one in Cleveland) than the rest of the family, along with a bunch of other children who also died in 1916. I always wonder what happened – I suppose it must have been an epidemic of some sort, though it was too early for Spanish Flu, but I haven’t been able to find out what. So sad that they’re in their own little section with very plain little graves!

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